Poet's Pick April 5
Edmund Spenser: "Mutabilitie"
Selected by Eamon Grennan
National Poetry Month 2017

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Eamon Grennan's Poetry Month Pick, April 5, 2017

by Edmund Spenser (1552–1599)

One of the great set-pieces in English literature is composed of the two cantos that come at the end of Spenser’s unfinished masterpiece, The Faerie Queene.  Called the Mutability Cantos, they come in the middle of an apparently otherwise unwritten book VII, and deal with the concept of change, personified as the Titaness Mutability, who before the court of Nature pleads her own superiority to all things divine and human, to all earthly dwellers, to the elements themselves and to the gods and goddesses of the Olympian heaven.  These two cantos  are set in an imaginative, mythical Ireland (on the hill of Arlo; Spenser spent most of his creative life in Ireland, the landscape of which he includes not only in The Faerie Queene but in other works, and the colonial subjugation of which he questionably justifies in his prose text, A View of the Present State of Ireland).  The cantos are an extraordinary tour de force of rhetorical lyricism and cultural allusion.  In them one can find, as well as echoes stretching back to Chaucer, even the seeds of Milton’s Paradise Lost , as well as Keats’s abortive epics of Hyperion and the temper and tenor of his great odes, especially To Autumn—which is itself a kind of postscript to the Spenser cantos, in the form of an exuberant hymn to mutability itself.  In their naturalism, in their biological materialism, Spenser’s cantos are an astonishing attempt to find a means of accommodating and celebrating and lamenting a world of perpetual change, without losing hold of some sense of a moral order inherent in things.  I’ll just give  a small sample.  Here is how (in Canto VII) the poet portrays Nature—who seems both male and female, who is veiled, who has “gracious Majesty” as well as, perhaps, the face of a lion; who dazzles like the sun, and is likened to the transfigured Christ (Spenser is the greatest concocter of that kind of Renaissance stew)—

This well may seemen true; for well I weene,
That this same day when she on Arlo sat ,
Her garment was so bright and wondrous sheene,
That my fraile wit cannot devize to what
It to compare, nor find like stuff to that:
As those three sacred Saints , though else most wise,
Yet on Mount Thabor quite their wits forgat,
When they their glorious Lord in strange disguise
Transfigur’d saw; his garments so did daze their eyes.

Best of all for me are Nature’s words, judging the claims to absolute power of Mutability. It is a formulation of exquisite tact, a  religious gesture that incorporates as much of physical fact as possible.  Says Nature:

”I well consider all that ye have said,
And find that all things steadfastness do hate
And changed be; yet, being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate,
and turning to themselves at length again,
do work their own perfection so by fate:
Then over them change doth not rule and raigne,
But they raigne over change, and do their states maintaine.”

These two Cantos are all we have of the Book of Mutability, except for a tiny two-stanza coda from Canto VIII, in which the poet in his own voce reflects on the events he has narrated, considers the nature of the world and “this state of life” as “so fading and so fickle,” and steadies himself, in a conventional gesture of Christian humility, on “the pillars of eternity,/ That is contrary to mutability;/ For all that moveth doth in Change delight:/ But thenceforth all shall rest eternally/ With Him that is the God of Sabaoth hight:/ O! that great Sabaoth God, grant me that Sabaoth sight.”  What I always love about this is the way Spenser has, in these fluent quick stanzas of his own invention, managed to give both forces that fuel his imagination—the material energy of joy in the live world and the spiritual energy of religious belief—his allegiance, the allegiance of the poet.

           — Eamon Grennan

Eamon Grennan:
The author of more than ten collections of poetry, including Out of Sight: New and Selected Poems (2010) and There Now (2016), Eamon Grennan has also written a book of essays, Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the 20th Century (1999). He won the PEN Award for poetry in translation for Selected Poems of Giacomo Leopardi (1997), and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets for Still Life with Waterfall (2002).

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